Tech-Addled Kids Have Trouble Holding a Pencil

All number of things — from intricate finger movement to hand-eye coordination — have to go right before someone can actually write. kriangkrainetnangrong/Shutterstock

Kids today. Can’t even push a pencil.

It turns out those words — straight out of the playbook of your 1950s-honed grand-uncle who likes to bemoan the "softness" of today’s generation — may have a ring of truth.

Pediatricians in the U.K. are warning that children born in the age of tablets and touchscreens are missing the fine motor skills needed to operate the simpler implements in life: pens and pencils.

"Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago," Sally Payne, a pediatrician at the Heart of England foundation NHS Trust tells the Guardian. "Children coming into school are being given a pencil but are increasingly not be able to hold it because they don’t have the fundamental movement skills.

"To be able to grip a pencil and move it, you need strong control of the fine muscles in your fingers. Children need lots of opportunity to develop those skills."

And, in a tech-addled age where kids often learn to clatter a keyboard before wielding a pen, those skills may not be forthcoming.

"It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes," Payne adds.

It's not just about handwriting

Certainly penmanship has been on a steady decline since the advent of key-pecking, but there’s some debate whether that’s even a bad thing. Some educators, while noting the ravages of technology on a kid’s ability to write cursive, suggest it’s the curriculum and not the kid that should adapt. Indeed, Arizona educators are mulling a move to drop cursive writing entirely from classes. Why spend time teaching a kid to wield soon-to-be ancient artifacts like pens and pencils when today’s curriculum is already so cramped and underfunded?

The thing is, there’s more than one point to penmanship. As Payne notes, a pencil is a kind of wooden wand that develops hand strength and dexterity that children will need throughout their lives. It's a lifelong learning tool that helps the world produce its surgeons, pilots and reassuring hand-shakers.

Hands holding various items
There are all sorts of reasons why we need to get a grip on handwriting at an early age. urfin/Shutterstock

Sure, one might argue, there's a PlayStation controller for that. But there’s no substitute for the intricacies of holding a pencil, where the thumb, index and middle fingers work as a team to apply just the right pressure to etch something intelligible on paper.

And if the resulting scrawl isn’t entirely coherent, it opens the door for an all-important lesson on the virtues of practice. A keyboard, on the other hand, ticks off each letter with perfect precision from the very start. At the same time, it deprives a kid not only of the joys of getting something right, but also developing a written identity.

Handwriting is deeply personal. And as anyone who has gone through the old notes of a family member will attest, reading cursive can be a powerfully intimate experience.

Consider, too, that if society stops teaching children how to push a pen, how long before we won’t be able to read it? Maybe the pen will someday be history. But we all need to know how to read history.

Or, as blogger Starre Vartan puts it so succinctly:

"As an art lover, I visit as many museums as I can, and a major part of many exhibitions, original written documents are included — not to mention online genealogical research, and even reading your own family's own old mail — all of which requires the reader to be able to decipher handwriting from times past."
Handwritten notes and cards on a wall
Someday, reading history may be relegated to specialists trained to read handwriting. Neirfy/Shutterstock

Indeed, pushing a pen is much more than getting a message across. It’s physical — developing the strength and coordination on a micro level that we all need throughout our lives.

And, in age where people turn increasingly to the same old emoji to express themselves, those squiggly lines on paper may be one of the few remaining bastions of identity.

Indeed, when it comes to expressing and preserving our identity, the pen is mightier than even the swipe.